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Within the scope of European Week in late May, Tbilisi played host to Atlantic Dinners. Since 2009, this international forum has been bringing together leading politicians, businessmen and representatives of media, the arts, the sciences and non-governmental organizations from various countries. Participants in these events generally discuss contemporary global issues. The main topics of the Atlantic Dinners event hosted in Tbilisi by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili were democracy, progress and innovation. Tabula offers an interview with Felix Marquardt, the founder of Atlantic Dinners.

Let’s start with a general question. What is the purpose of your visit?

 First of all, I wanted to support full-heartedly the European Week, a project that dates from before I was around and before the first time I came to Georgia. But the idea of bringing in actors – whether bloggers, opposition activists or journalists from the Arab Spring movement – was the idea that we sort of pushed forward together with Rafael [Glucksmann, advisor to the Georgian President]. And the idea of bringing all these people was really exciting and crucial to me for several reasons. One of them is very simple: At the end of the day, it takes very different qualities, very different sets of skills, to unravel something, to deconstruct, to tear down the walls, and different sets of skills all together to build things up. So somehow people who for the past five months have been tearing things down in Tunisia, in Egypt – and, hopefully, they will manage to tear things down in Syria, in Iran, elsewhere –they are still at the stage of tearing things down. So, by nature for them, it is extremely interesting to hear people who have been through this process – like Georgia had been a few years ago, in 2003 – and who have been since then faced with the task of rebuilding. And what I find interesting is, for them, it was extremely interesting to hear what the Georgians had to learn, had to teach them, what lessons they have taken. The President and several other key people here have told them that they did make mistakes and they need to learn from those mistakes, and these people have a lot to learn from these mistakes.

The venue where you bring these people is the Atlantic Dinners. Tell me about the idea of the Atlantic Dinners, its purpose.

It takes very different qualities, very different sets of skills, to unravel something, to deconstruct, to tear down the walls, and different sets of skills all together to build things up.
 First of all, I launched Atlantic Dinners because of what I thought was a very French phenomenon, and that phenomenon was that local elites and international elites in Paris did not mix. So French did their dinners and then you had this kind of expat dinners. And, frankly, I find dinners with only French people extremely boring – I mean big dinners. But, equally, I am not comfortable with these only expat dinners either; there is no soul, there is something missing. So the first goal of these Atlantic Dinners was to change something about this in Paris. But what I found was, while this phenomenon is exasperated in Paris, it exists in many other places. So, we are trying to be vectors of conversation between local elites and international elites. This is our mission. And not in the narrow sense of the word “elite.” I don’t mean only rich people or only powerful people. When I think of elite, it also means artists, it means musicians, it means the architects, it means the bloggers, etcetera. If it’s top of the top, I want them at the dinner. If they are interesting, if they can bring something to the table, I am interested.

 So we started initially with a very serious conversation about the future of the global economy with global economist Nouriel Roubini and, actually a few months ago, we welcomed Nouriel again. We have since had two dinners around Mikheil Saakashvili – one in Paris, one here in Tbilisi. We also did a dinner around President Santos of Columbia. We did one around Celso Amorim, who was a foreign minister of Brazil back then. And, most recently, we did, we were extremely honored to have an Atlantic Dinner around Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ dinner was not at all related to Microsoft; it was actually about his foundation’s work.

You are a founder of the communication company called Beyond Influence. What is the importance of communication now in the Twenty-First Century? How important is it for government to communicate with people, for private companies to communicate with their customers?

 I think there is a very different agenda. For me, it is important to work for the causes that I think are valuable. I do a lot of work for some countries, for some governments, but also for NGOs and very little for corporations these days. The reason for that is, corporate communication is less interesting for me and it is much better mastered than others. What I am interested in is pioneering what’s new.

 Why it is important for the country to communicate? Well, because as long as you have never been to Georgia, if you are sitting in Paris, you basically have no clue what you are talking about. You don’t care when you see something in the news if you are sitting in a small town somewhere in southern France and you are drinking your local Chacha and you watch the news and see that Russian tanks are rolling into Georgia. Okay, you see a weird little former Soviet country, and Russians, who have been running the show in the Soviet Union anyway, are back. It looks like, Oh, it’s like south of Chechnya on the map, it’s so remote and it’s so far that I don’t really care.

 If I take this same person, and I take her to Georgia and introduce her to several people, to people of Tbilisi, to joys of Batumi, to mountains of Tusheti and remarkable people that live there, or to the wine-tasting regions, then you adopt, you become an ambassador to the place. And the beauty of this game when you are a wonderful country like Georgia is that all you need to convince people that they should care about Georgia and love Georgia and come and invest in Georgia and spend their holidays in Georgia, all you need to do is take them to Georgia because if they spend a week here then the mission is accomplished.

But you can’t bring all the people to Georgia.

 Of course you cannot bring everyone. You have to take influencers and opinion-makers. That’s the key. You have to take people who are listened to, who are followed, who set the agenda. That is the key of communications. So what I try to do is bring such people from all around the world.

Tell me about your future plans concerning Georgia.

 We are going to organize a conference in October of this year on the theme of transformation and innovation, bringing together very different experts in terms of innovation and transformation. As I mentioned in my speech at this Atlantic Dinner in Tbilisi, I know well many governments, I work for some governments, and I think I can say that the most innovative government in the world is in Georgia. So people from the government are going to come and talk about what they see as the most radical means to change and innovate. From the Silicon Valley, there will be some people gathering who have more of a technical-web vision of innovation. We will also have NGO people, media people because, again, I think that the innovation theme suits this country very well. And you know when you start with very little, it’s a curse because you are starting from scratch and it’s tough. But it also is a blessing because you don’t have to do all the stupid mistakes that everyone has made and you can skip the stages. For example, the French invented in the 1980s a little computer, sort of an ancestor of the Internet, which everyone had at home. It was called Minitel. For many years, the French were like, ”Oh, we have Minitel, everyone else is retarded.” And then came the Internet, and soon the French were so focused on their Minitel that they missed the Internet train. So I think you have the opportunity not to get caught up in Minitel.    

 Maybe I should add that we are going to do an Atlantic Dinner about Arab Spring in Beirut. Probably, we are going to do one in Kabul. And what I hope is –in places like Kabul and Beirut when we discuss how to go from revolution to construction – I hope that we can count on Georgian expertise.

Tabula

M.B

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